I walk by the Boyle Building at the corner of Capitol and Main streets in downtown Little Rock most days (my office is just a block away), hoping against hope that some kind of development is taking place in the classic structure that was built in 1909. It was back in March 2014 that the Chi Hotel Group said that it would transform the Boyle Building into a hotel, an announcement that created excitement among downtown advocates.
"We've already seen millions of dollars invested in Main Street," Mayor Mark Stodola said at the time. "This is another huge injection of money."
Nothing happened. Plans to open an Aloft Hotel fell through. The building still sits empty and decaying at what should be downtown's premier intersection. It's a blighted giant on a street that otherwise is seeing plenty of activity. When I noticed a freshly painted wooden wall go up around the building this summer, I thought an announcement of redevelopment plans might be imminent. That was until Little Rock attorney Carol Worley, whose office is on Main Street, informed me that the wall is part of a plan to have murals painted on empty downtown buildings. Worley chairs the Public Spaces Committee of the Downtown Little Rock Partnership.
"If you don't have a neighborhood that's attractive to people, they're not going to come down here," she says.
She's right. Murals are better than urban decay. But revitalized buildings are better than murals. There have been successes along Main Street, but the fact remains that the street's two most prominent structures--the Boyle and Donaghey buildings--remain deserted, casting a shadow of urban decay on the restaurants and offices that have opened along the street in recent years. There are tentative plans to put apartments in the buildings, but firm timetables haven't been forthcoming, leaving Little Rock civic leaders in the "we'll believe it when we see it" mode.
The Boyle Building was the city's second skyscraper with 11 stories. A 12th story was added in 1949. It originally was the State National Bank Building. When the bank failed, its headquarters was purchased by John Boyle in 1916. The building became the home of Boyle Realty Co. along with dozens of stores, offices, restaurants and other businesses through the decades. Little Rock's first skyscraper had been the 10-story Southern Trust Building (now known as Pyramid Place) on Second Street. Judge William Marmaduke Kavanaugh selected the site and hired architect George Mann, who had designed the state Capitol. The grand opening was held on New Year's Eve 1907.
The 14-story Donaghey Building was designed by New York architect Hunter McDonnell and was built in 1925-26. It was the city's tallest structure until a coalition of businessmen led by Winthrop Rockefeller financed construction of the Tower Building on Center Street in 1959-60.
Main Street is never going to achieve its full potential until something happens with the Boyle and Donaghey buildings. There are, however, projects moving forward elsewhere downtown. Earlier this year, the folks at Arkansas Life magazine gave an update on four projects. I agree with them that these are the most exciting announced projects in the area. They are:
• The transformation of the Hall-Davidson buildings on Capitol Avenue into an AC Hotel by Marriott, a hip brand that one normally finds in cities larger than Little Rock. Those who follow the hotel industry realize that attracting the AC brand is a big deal. The 112-room hotel in the renovated 1923 structure will be complemented by a 5,000-square-foot restaurant and lounge that will add to what's already a booming restaurant scene downtown.
• John Burkhalter's Rock City Yacht Club, part of a $60 million development that later will include a 6,000-square-foot floating restaurant and 168 luxury apartments. The Rock City marina will have 160 slips and a store. Burkhalter said last month that the opening of the marina has been delayed until spring due to high water on the Arkansas River earlier this year. Construction on the apartment complex, to be known as the Residences at Harbor Town, will begin next year.
• The development of what's known as East Village near and along Shall Avenue. In the words of Arkansas Life: "For a while, the East Village felt the same as it always had. There was still grit. There were still yards of scrap metal, the dull red-brown of iron, the highly buffed shine of aluminum. But frankly, during all that time, there wasn't a lot of village." There's now the popular Cathead's Diner, 16 adjoining residences in the building known as The Paint Factory, and the eStem East Village Elementary School. Shall Avenue has never been busier.
• Ongoing plans for the $70 million renovation and expansion of the Arkansas Arts Center. Groundbreaking probably won't happen until the fall of 2019, and the project won't be completed until early 2022. It promises, though, to transform MacArthur Park and the surrounding neighborhoods. The Arkansas Arts Center welcomes more than 200,000 visitors annually, and those numbers should go up once the project is completed. The design was done by world-renowned architect Jeanne Gang of Studio Gang and landscape architect Kate Orff. It features 127,000 square feet of new and renovated space. There will be a restaurant overlooking MacArthur Park, a new north entrance that reveals the original 1937 Museum of Fine Arts facade, a second floor of galleries, and expanded education spaces.
Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.
Editorial on 09/05/2018
Print Headline: Down on Main Street